Mullen | Cooked: Sen. Buttars isn’t the sharpest knife in the block 

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So, I’m sifting through the coverage of Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s first public showdown with the rightest wing of the state Senate over a pet campaign promise: the establishment of a registry for domestic partners within his first month of office. The registry would be a resource for businesses in choosing to extend insurance and other benefits to city residents who are unmarried adult partners and family members who cohabit.

It took a minute, but then I remembered how this has played out before. It was 1992. A candidate filled with the passion of his ideals and the vigor to pursue them promised to fight for the equal rights of all. Bill Clinton won the U.S. presidency and, right out of the chute, demanded that Congress overturn its archaic ban on gays and bisexuals in the military.

Congress immediately balked, then pretty much chewed up Clinton and spit him out. So much for the purity of ideals. In the end, the best Clinton could do—and what remains in place 15 years later—is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. It’s better than nothing, but it’s feeble. And I’ve wondered over the years if Clinton’s zeal for jumping on the issue so quickly really accomplished much.

What happened to Becker in the course of a week feels a bit like what happened to Clinton so long ago. One minute, the new mayor was all smiles and raised fists, as the Salt Lake City Council passed his domestic-partner registry ordinance. But, within days, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, perennial water carrier of Utah’s self-appointed morals squad, introduced a bill to ban cities from enacting any measure that recognizes a domestic partnership or civil union. In Buttars’ view, the Salt Lake City ordinance is a sneaky way around the Utah’s Defense of Marriage Act, which voters approved four years ago by amending the state Constitution.

The speed in which Buttars’ bill gained ground boggles the mind. I opened an e-mail from Equality Utah on the afternoon of Feb. 7, noting Buttars’ intentions of pushing the bill and the gay-rights organization’s plan to oppose it. Four days later, Senat Bill 267 has flown through committee, with a 4-0 vote. With his butchered grammar and grumpy demeanor, Buttars rarely comes off as the sharpest knife in the block, but I must say this: The guy knows something about timing.

Buttars seems to know what Bill Clinton didn’t in the fresh days of his first term, and what so many liberals in this state—Ralph Becker included—don’t. You may have great passion and the determination to back it up, but without timing, you’re cooked. Didn’t Becker’s long years as a lonely Democrat in the Legislature at least teach him that much? Like Clinton, Becker grabbed a third rail of social policy—gay rights—from the moment he took his mayor’s oath. He was going to keep a campaign promise to his liberal support base, by God—and he did. But, his timing was way off. And now the issue looks dead for the foreseeable future.

We know the mayor has the passion for this issue but what about the right instincts? It’s not like Becker had to win many folks in Salt Lake City to his side. From the minute he announced his candidacy, he had a strong base among Salt Lake City’s gay-rights proponents. He had nothing to prove by waiting a few more weeks into his term before pushing the registry into reality. The Legislature has a fine long history of stomping all over cities’ powers—especially Salt Lake City’s—whenever it deems fit. Had Becker waited just one more month to shepherd his domestic-partners registry through the council, he might have saved himself and the rest of us this grief.

The city would have had nine months to function under the domestic-partners’ registry. That’s nine months in which business could have flowed along smoothly. We might have actually seen a few unmarried partners benefiting in the meantime. And, don’t forget, our nanny Legislature would have had nine months of recess, too. Who knows? By the time the next session rolled around in 2009, the issue may have slid off the right-wing brain trust’s table.

SB267 has to withstand a vote before the full Senate and then goes to the House for scrutiny. Consider it done. Buttars will have the votes and nothing less than the U.S. Constitution behind him on this deal. In their undeniable foresight, the framers nonetheless made no mention of cities’ rights in the Constitution, and so cities have been at the mercy of federal and state governments ever since. Call it a kink in an otherwise smooth chain of democracy. For the most part, American cities can only function as their state legislatures see fit. In this case, Buttars and friends said, “No.”

And so, of course, everything comes back to timing. Like Clinton’s plan to ban discrimination against gays in the military, Becker’s dream for a domestic-partners registry was a lovely idea on the campaign trail. Today, it looks all but dead.

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